Ciliary neurotrophic factor (CNTF) influences the levels of choline acetyltransferase (ChAT) and tyrosine hydroxylase (TH) in cultures of dissociated sympathetic neurons from newborn rats. In the presence of CNTF both the total and specific activity of ChAT was increased 7 d after culture by 15- and 18-fold, respectively, as compared to cultures kept in the absence of CNTF. Between 3 and 21 d in culture in the presence of CNTF the total ChAT activity increased by a factor of greater than 100. Immunotitration demonstrated that the elevated ChAT levels were due to an increased number of enzyme molecules. In contrast to the increase in ChAT levels, the total and specific activity levels of TH were decreased by 42 and 36%, respectively, after 7 d in culture. Half-maximal effects for both ChAT increase and TH decrease were obtained at CNTF concentrations of approximately 0.6 ng and maximal levels were reached at 1 ng of CNTF per milliliter of medium. The effect of CNTF on TH and ChAT levels were seen in serum-containing medium as well as in serum-free medium. CNTF was shown to have only a small effect on the long-term survival of rat sympathetic neurons. We therefore concluded that the effects of CNTF on ChAT and TH are not due to selective survival of cells that acquire cholinergic traits in vitro, but are rather due to the induction of cholinergic differentiation of noradrenergic sympathetic neurons.

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